It's almost amazing to think at this point – she still feels like an ever-rising star – but it's been over a decade since Keira Knightley first made an impression on screen. She first came to notice in British thriller "The Hole" in 2001, aged only 16, the following year co-starred in crowd-pleasing comedy "Bend It Like Beckham," and the next year headlined Disney mega-blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl." And although she's attracted more unwarranted bile than many of her contemporaries, she's also continued to impress as an actress, starting with an Oscar nomination aged only 20 for "Pride & Prejudice" (the fourth youngest in history in the category).
This year, she's reunited for the third time with her director on that film, Joe Wright (who also helmed "Atonement"), for Focus and Working Title's "Anna Karenina," which sees the duo adapt, from a top-notch script by Tom Stoppard, Leo Tolstoy's literary classic "Anna Karenina." And it might be Knightley's finest performance to date, in a film that boldly provides a new take on the costume drama. The film opened in the U.K. this week, just as it premiered at TIFF on Friday, and we sat down with Knightley in Toronto to discuss the film, its place in her career, and her upcoming projects "Can A Song Save Your Life?" and "Jack Ryan." Take a look at some highlights from the conversation below.
To a degree Knightley found it intimidating taking on such a well known part, but the character's unlikability was also freeing.
The title role in "Anna Karenina" is hardly Keira Knightley's first brush with a much-adapted literary character, and the actress acknowledges the history behind the part, although says they didn't cast too much of a shadow. "I'd seen the Garbo version," she told us, "and I'd seen a version done in 2001 with Helen McCrory (made for British TV, with Kevin McKidd as Vronsky), but I was in my early-to-mid teens when i watched them, and they weren't things I watched again and again, so I didn't really know them. And I hadn't seen Vivien Leigh's version, or Claire Bloom's version, or Sophie Marceau's." But the character had certain aspects to her that separated her from some of her previous roles. As Knightley said, "In a funny kind of way, it was less threatening than Elizabeth Bennett in 'Pride & Prejudice', because it's not a character that people see themselves as. People see themselves as Elizabeth Bennett, want to be her, people fall in love with her, so that was quite a terrifying thing. Anna isn't someone that people want to be. She's this kind of curious, dark, jewel-like creature that's at quite a distance, and is quite frightening. And in that way, it's totally fascinating. When you read it, I actually think that Tolstoy hated her. And a lot of people will disagree with me there. He's saying that she's a victim, an innocent, but a lot of the time he's saying she's guilty, in a way she's the whore of Babylon, every fallen woman, and disgusting because of that."
That said, she has plenty of empathy with a character that may be her most adult to date.
Knightley's now been a familiar face on screen for nearly a decade, but as she says, "Anna Karenina" might be the most adult role the 27-year-old actress has ever played, a mother and a wife. "She's a women, not a girl. She's probably the same age as i am, and by the standards of the time, and the personality, she's never really a girl." And for all her flaws, Knightley found a way to empathize with her. "You have to go 'Would I do any differently?' I like to think I would never be that deceitful or manipulative. But actually, you don't know, and you probably have been all of those negative things at some point. So how can you judge that? And that's where I think she gets incredibly interesting, where she throws a harsh light up to human beings, that emotional journey we all go in, where we hurt the people we love the most. That's always an interesting dialog I had while reading the book, and hopefully that people will have watching the film."The film was originally conceived as a more straight-laced adaptation.
Much of the talk about the film in advance has revolved around Joe Wright's bold decision to set the film, for the most part, inside a theater, in a defiantly non-naturalistic manner. But Knightley confirms it wasn't always intended that way. "It was a naturalistic telling when I first signed on," she told us. "We were going to shoot the whole thing in Russia, in sets that were as close to what was described in the book as possible. And then," she added with a laugh, "we found out that, economically, it would be incredibly expensive, and it would push the budget to double what we had, to actually shoot in Russia."
Fortunately, Wright's research had given him a way around it. "All this time, Joe was reading this book, Orlando Figes' 'Natasha's Dance,' which is a cultural history of Russia. And he got obsessed with the idea that Russian aristocrats in the 18th and 19th century couldn't actually speak Russian, they spoke French or Italian. And they lived in houses designed in the European style, their clothes were French, their food was French, their etiquette was French, they couldn't even speak to people of a lower class in their own country. They had these houses where the interior was French, but they had secret rooms that were designed in a Russian style, but no one except the immediate family were allowed into, and were literallly kept behind secret doorways. So he got obsessed with the idea that they were almost like actors on a stage, that they were playing the role of French aristocracy. So it was that that planted the seed." And ultimately, Knightely seems glad that the film took this route. "When you're doing a book that's been done so many times before," she said, "and a group of people who've worked together so many times before, you have to try and do something new. There was a sense with all of us that the worst that could happen was that we'd fail."
Getting the balance of naturalism and stylization in Knightley's performance was tricky, but it was helped by Wright's general aversion to the prosaic.
Given the naturalistic origins, and the more atypical setting that Wright put on the project, Knightley clearly had a trickier task on her hands than she did with "Pride & Prejudice" or "Atonement." "It was a balancing act," she acknowledges, "because it's really easy to go arch. "The thing with Anna is that she's an incredibly emotional being, and that emotional side had to be there at all times. Because if she's being completely rational and detached, that she wouldn't behave in the way that she does. So we made that decision that whether it's naturalistic or not, it's always heightened, it's always emotional." But as anyone who saw "Hanna" will know, Wright's not exactly a docu-drama fanatic. "Joe has a funny relationship with the word naturalism," Knightley added, "he finds it very claustrophobic, the idea that you have to be emulating reality at all times. And I think that's why he loved creating this thing."
As for her relationship with Wright, she says that they've never had a plan to work consistently, although she does say that the project first came about after a discussion on the set of a previous film. "We had a general conversation about great female roles when we working on 'Atonement.' And 'Anna Karenina' came up, we both went 'that's the one, isn't it?' But it wasn't until three years after that that he called me up… We really liked the idea of this strange trilogy, our literary trilogy."
After wrapping "Anna Karenina," Knightley just wanted to have a little fun, hence her work on the upcoming, and partially-improvised "Can A Song Save Your Life?" and blockbuster "Jack Ryan."
"Anna Karenina" is arguably the culmination of what Knightley's been working towards the last few years, but once she wrapped the film, she felt the need for a chance. "I realized I'd spent five years doing films where I die at the end, and thought I should do something positive," Knightley said. As a result, the first thing she signed on to was of a very different style. "I just finished a film in New York which is about friendship, and making an album. 'Can A Song Save Your Life,' although it'll probably change the title. It's not a musical, but there is music in it. I had to sing in it, I'm not a very good singer, but hopefully I'm good enough to fake it. It was a tiny, tiny budget, in New York, but part of the reason I did, I like working with text, and John Carney doesn't do any of that, and [co-star] Mark Ruffalo too, he likes a lot of improvisation. That terrifies me more than anything else, and I thought I should get out of my comfort zone before I got too rigidly into the way I work. So four days before we started shooting, John said "right, we're throwing the script out the window, we're going to improvise the whole thing." Which is my idea of terror, but equally why I wanted to do it."
On the other end of the spectrum is the film that Knightley's about to start work on, the tentpole actioner "Jack Ryan," in which she's been cast as the wife of Chris Pine's title character. She doesn't excuse it being anything other than a bit of fun, but got to tick another box by taking the job. "It's pure entertainment," Knightley says. "It's something I haven't done for a long time. This is running around a lot, but it's Ken Branagh, who's directing it, and playing the baddie. He's one of the main reasons I wanted to be an actress, I was so obsessed with his 'Henry V,' 'Much Ado About Nothing,' and 'Hamlet,' so the chance of working with him [was what drew me to the project], even though it's something that's nothing like that. He's also one of the most phenomenal stage actors I've ever seen, so I sort of just want to have a look at him."
Interview by Julian Carrington